Politics & Policy

A Wake-Up Call for Conservatives  

Students walk between classes on the Locust Walk on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa., September 25, 2017. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)
Millennials and Generation Z show no sign of growing more conservative over time like the Boomers did. We must address the age gap.

Can conservatives find any comfort in the notion that the children are our future? A new poll conducted by Echelon Insights at the behest of Young America’s Foundation (YAF) suggests not.

With a few exceptions, the data gathered by surveying 801 high-school students and 819 college students makes it plain that the Republican Party continues to struggle connecting with young people, or even convincing them to take up the more conservative position on discrete issues. Of course, this shouldn’t be particularly surprising. The youths are always more progressive, more taken by the newest social fads, and convinced that they have more to remedy than to be grateful for. It was during Ronald Reagan’s time as governor of California, after all, that he told student protestors he would sell his bonds if they were — as they claimed to be — the future.

Any reasonable conservative political stockbroker analyzing these numbers would have to advise their own clients to follow the Gipper’s example. I say this not because I’m especially surprised by or even worried about Joe Biden’s being able to boast a 60 percent approval rating with this demographic; or the Democratic Party’s +23-point favorability rating; or the Republican Party’s comparatively depressing -21-point performance. As discouraging as these top-line numbers are, they are, again, to be expected.

Much more disturbing are the splits between secondary and postsecondary students. In nearly every regard, those attending university are more progressive than their younger counterparts. The difference in favorability ratings between the two parties, for example, shrinks from a 44-point gap to a 30-point one when you measure only the younger cohort. That means, though, that it expands to a shocking 59 points when you examine only the older group.

College students are also much more likely to support defense cuts, believe in the efficacy of green-energy spending, and prefer a larger government with more programs to a smaller one with less. Both groups favor a $15/hour federal minimum-wage hike — and by nearly identical margins — but collegiate respondents are less likely to change their mind after they’ve been informed of the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that such a hike would cost 1.4 million jobs. Unsurprisingly, they’re also substantially less inclined to believe students such as themselves have an obligation to pay back their loans and are more inclined to support a forgiveness program. The one issue on which university attendees hold the more conservative position is taxes — for those making over $400,000, that is, which is an income bracket they are far more likely to join.

These results should lead the conservatives interpreting them to two distressing, but hopefully motivating, conclusions.

The first conclusion is an obvious one: A college education is a not-so-golden ticket to a worldview that embraces the premises of the Left. This may be a seemingly self-evident truth to conservatives, but there are those who deny it. This poll makes it obvious that time spent on a campus — being governed by progressive administrators, being taught by progressive faculty, and most important, living amongst progressive peers — tends to turn you into a much more progressive person. Conservatives are quick to complain about this phenomenon, but it’s very possible that we underestimate its consequences.

Yes, perhaps the leftward drift of the college-educated can be mitigated somewhat by the GOP’s recent gains with the working class. Will that be enough with a rising high-school-educated class that may be slightly more conservative than those who enroll at university, but who is still far more progressive than the average American? Moreover, even assuming that Republicans can make up for their losses with college graduates electorally in the short run, it stands to reason that having fewer conservatives with college degrees who can enter fields such as education, journalism, government work, and political activism will have longer-term implications on who is elected and how the country is governed. All voters may be created equal, but the pitfalls of being underrepresented in important — or at least influential — areas of life should be obvious to any conservative surveying today’s political landscape. Everything in this poll points to an ascending class of elites, as well as middle- and working-class voters, which skews even more disproportionately leftward.

The second conclusion naturally follows from the first: Conservatives are not doing enough to persuade young people. Part of this can be attributed to a complacency borne out of the belief that as a matter of course, foolish young liberals will transform into wise old conservatives.

Wrong.

Millennials show no sign of growing more conservative over time like the Boomers did, and there’s little evidence to suggest Generation Z will revert back to the mean. There’s nothing inevitable about generational ideological shifts — they must be earned, not counted upon. I’ve presented my own vision of what I think conservative students can do to make a difference on their own campuses, but their efforts won’t be nearly enough. What is needed is a concerted effort by conservative organizations, publications, and politicians to appeal to America’s youth, an effort that goes beyond sloganeering and providing fan service to those few who already consider themselves young men and women of the Right.

Exactly what such an effort looks like may be outside the scope of this column, but any successful approach will need to meld outreach with tangible political efforts. YAF’s “Long Game” initiative shows promise. So does Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s attempt to banish divisive, falsehood-laden racial theories from public schools. Simply addressing the concerns of young people (debt, the environment, etc.) while presenting the conservative perspective on other issues nonconfrontationally can only yield positive results.

Young people are this country’s future, and it is past time conservatives rededicate themselves to shaping and changing their worldview.

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